New York

View of “Lucas Samaras,” 2015.

View of “Lucas Samaras,” 2015.

Lucas Samaras

Pace | 32 East 57th Street

View of “Lucas Samaras,” 2015.

There’s Lucas Samaras again and again, showcased in row after row of more or less postcard-size photos—a tour de force of narcissism and inventive art. The astounding 720 pictures that were on view in this show have all been digitally altered and feature the artist at various stages of his life and in different moods, poses, states of undress: They range from images of a fresh-faced, innocent-looking boy to pictures of a bearded, sinister older man. Presiding over this autobiographical album—ostensibly a family album, for it begins with some photographs of Samaras’s Greek family—are thirty-four larger-scale photos of the artist as he looks today. His wild beard and sometimes enraged, usually troubled face suggest a wrathful Old Testament God or a prophet of doom. Samaras seems to find himself endlessly fascinating; indeed, he is as in love with his image as Narcissus was, absorbed in himself as though no one else existed.

Unlike that mythological figure, Samaras hasn’t yet drowned in his image, but death haunts his consciousness. “Old age is catastrophe,” he told me the last time we spoke. His photos are unique in the annals of self-portraiture; only Francis Bacon’s come close to them in traumatic intensity and self-distorting suffering. Samaras once lived alone in a dark, cave-like apartment; now his living space is filled with sunlight. Yet a sun-drenched skyscraper can be as closed off from the outside as any cave. Even if Samaras left the Platonic cave for the light, he remains attached to shadows.

Samaras wants to leave a record of his life and art for posterity; the show was a kind of archive. The photographs are in effect mementos of a life devoted to making art and—more important—to gaining self-knowledge through art, using art as an instrument for self-analysis. (The exhibition also included Doorway, a mirrored room installation that was conceived in 1966 and not realized until 2007.) A poem published in an accompanying catalogue underscores Samaras’s interest in psychological introspection. The work reflects a rambling stream of consciousness, the words piled on one another in a sort of free-associative Tower of Babel, an unexpectedly intelligible demonstration of “psychic automatism” at its surreal best. (Samaras has authored a number of surreally bizarre stories, some mischievously erotic, some nasty.) In some of the images, Samaras seems to be making fun of himself; in others, he seems pretentiously tragic. All of them are mind-teasing and self-questioning—as ironic as they are self-indulgent. He has taken to heart Socrates’s remark that “an unexamined life is not worth living.” Examining his life, Samaras suggests that it was worth living. Art and life seamlessly integrate in perpetual metamorphic motion. “Remember me!” Samaras’s photographs shout. And his photographs are indeed memorable: For they are important meditations on the meaning and purpose of life and art.

Donald Kuspit